You’ve never turned on a wheel on a track, but it isn’t for lack of want. Not knowing the rules or how exactly to prepare yourself and your car, as well as an overall uncertainty as to what you’re supposed to do once you get there can be enough to overshadow your driving desire. But it doesn’t have to.
Your first inclination to make your car as fast as possible, is wrong. Taking safety precautions that’ll keep you from getting injured is a whole lot more important and is, in almost every case, required. Nobody’s going to let you onto the track if you and you’re car don’t meet all the important safety standards, most of which are universal amongst tracks and sanctioning bodies.
Besides, less power means the consequences of you bungling things up badly are smaller; it also means your brain will be able to dedicate itself to everything else, like turning, braking, and a proper line. If you understand that your first track day isn’t a race but a learning experience, it’ll be a whole lot more enjoyable.
You think you need a specialized seat and multi-point harness to go racing and you’re mostly right. That said, so long as your original seat’s mounted the way whoever built your car says it should be and your seatbelt’s in good working order, you’re considered fit for the track. Attempt to go any faster, though, and you’ll realize just how instrumental the right aftermarket bucket seat and multi-point harness can be when cornering hard or when things don’t go as planned.
The right bucket seat won’t just weigh less and be not as susceptible to going up in flames, it’ll also wrap around your hips and keep you from moving side to side while cornering, the results of which make you a better driver. NASA’s (National Auto Sport Association) rule book will tell you that whatever aftermarket racing seat you use can’t be made of plastics like PVC or ABS and has to be mounted in a way that’ll minimize its likelihood of breaking loose. Here, hardware that includes things like a minimum of grade 5 bolts, fender washers that spread the load, and solid-metal brackets that attach the seat to the chassis have to be used.
Swap seats and you may want a multi-point harness. Depending on the rollbar or ‘cage, it just might be required as well. Harnesses designed specifically for high-performance applications wrap around the driver’s torso and are made up of four, five, six, or even seven straps. Five-point harnesses are safer; they prevent you from sliding underneath the lap belt in a crash. Five-point-and-higher harnesses are made up of a lap belt, two shoulder belts, and as many as three anti-submarine straps, which are the ones that’ll keep you from landing underneath the dash. The straps are made of a more durable, wider material compared to your original belts, which better distribute the force, and one-motion quick-release capabilities mean a fast getaway in an emergency.
Whatever harness you choose, it has to meet the appropriate SFI or FIA specifications and can be no more than two years old. For example, NASA says that if you want to go racing, you’ve got to meet SFI specs 16.1 or 16.5.
Mounting the harness properly is just as critical as using the right one and, according to SCCA rules, it starts with the shoulder straps, which have to route over the driver’s shoulders, through the seat’s openings at a downward angle of no more than 20 degrees, and onto mounts positioned on the rollbar or roll ‘cage. The harnesses’ remaining points must be bolted directly to the chassis using at least SAE grade 5 or better hardware and fender washers that’ll help distribute the load. Speed Ventures’ Bimmer Challenge rule book says 25 degrees is acceptable, which leads to an important lesson: Figure out which sanctioning bodies you plan on satisfying before preparing your car; most of the time, you can meet all of their rules with a little bit of planning.
Unless you’ve got a convertible or something too fast for your first track day, you won’t need a rollbar. Someday you hopefully will, and not because you’ve found yourself tracking a Cabriolet.
Most of the time, a simple, four-point rollbar is all you’ll need. Here, a main hoop made out of a single piece of tubing and formed as close to the inside of the body as possible routes behind driver and passenger and is bolted (or welded) to the car’s sheetmetal at two points. A diagonal tube positioned within the same plane as the main hoop must also be added along with a shoulder harness bar that’s positioned parallel to the ground and a seat-back support reinforce that bucket seat of yours in the event of a crash. Additional braces extend from the main hoop’s uprights to the rear shock towers or wheelwell sheetmetal. Not only will a properly built bar or ‘cage improve safety, but it can stiffen up the chassis and result in better handling.
When rollbar shopping, you’ve got three choices: inexpensive mild steel, lighter-weight chrome-moly, or some other material that will never be track-legal. Tubing diameter requirements vary according to vehicle weight and tubing wall thickness but are typically 1-5/8 inch to 1-3/4 inch diameter. More elaborate designs can attach to the chassis in six, eight, or even more spots, depending on how safe or stiff you’re trying to make things. Unless you’re looking for a rollbar for something really esoteric, ready-made pieces are available, saving you from waiting on time-consuming and typically more expensive custom fabrication.
SCCA’s and NASA’s rules both allow for removable bars or ‘cages as long as they meet every other requirement, which is a good thing if your track car’s also used on the street. Driving around without a helmet and with your noggin just inches away from a big hunk of metal tubing will never be safe. The tubes have to be welded directly to mounting plates no smaller than 9 square inches that can either be bolted down or welded to the chassis. A 3/16-inch-thick plate must be used on the other side of the sheetmetal, sandwiching the car in between using SAE grade 5 or better hardware at least 5/16-inch diameter. Thinner, 0.080-inch plates may be used when welding the assembly into place. Finally, any tube that’s likely to come into contact with the driver has to be padded with high-density foam.
Even if you show up to your first HPDE with a 1988 Volvo, you’ll need a helmet. Most sanctioning bodies require something Snell-approved, which, similar to SFI or FIA ratings, means it’s passed all sorts of industry-accepted standards. NASA’s rule book, for example, says your helmet must be rated Snell SA2005 or newer, feature FIA certification of 8860-2004 or newer, or an SFI label reading 31.1/2005 or newer.
Nobody will send you home for wearing regular old jeans, closed-toed shoes, and a long-sleeved shirt, which is the minimum you should wear, but go fast enough and you’ll need something more. More as in a fireproof suit, gloves that’ll make gripping the steering wheel easier, and shoes that’ll let you do things you haven’t learned yet, like heel-toe shifting.
SCCA’s rule book says a proper driving suit should cover your entire body except for your hands, feet, and head. They’ll also be made from a single piece of fabric and carry an SFI3.2A/1, FIA 8856-2000, or FIA NORME 1986/1986 rating or higher. Show up in a racing suit and most any sanctioning body will also say you’ll need fire-resistant long underwear that meets the appropriate SFI or FIA ratings.
You falling short safety-wise with your factory steering wheel and its airbag isn’t going to happen. There isn’t anything safer and, in most cases, it should remain in place if it’s also your daily driver. But your factory steering wheel’s big. And heavy. Which means turning could be made easier and more communicative. That’s what a smaller, lighter-weight steering wheel can do for you, but before swapping one in place and ditching that airbag, be sure you’ve got the right kind of bucket seat and multi-point harness.
Your Audi doesn’t need the same kind of fire suppression system that a Formula car does, but a small, handheld extinguisher mounted within arm’s reach with you seated and strapped in might someday prove to be the smartest $150 you’ve ever spent. Stay away from the hardware store and find yourself an automotive-grade extinguisher that won’t blind you when using it and won’t leave its residue across your interior. According to SCCA rules, extinguishers must be quick-release mounted to a metal bracket that’s secured to the chassis with nuts and bolts-not screws-and within arm’s reach with you strapped in.
Your car stopping will always be more important than how fast it accelerates, which means making sure its brake pads are up to snuff is the top of any track day to-do list. Worn-out or inadequate pads that aren’t able to withstand a significant amount of heat will ruin any track day. Here, they’ll force you to brake sooner, which can slow down overall lap times more than just about anything. The world of aftermarket brake pads isn’t small. You’ve got your choice of pads that’ll get you to the track and back safely and perform adequately while you’re there, as well as pads designed specifically for track use that, if you plan ahead, can be swapped into place in the paddocks. Aside from the right tires, high-performance brake pads will improve your lap times more than just about anything else.
If your car sees double-duty as your daily commuter, then you’d do well to leave its alignment alone. As it turns out, whatever BMW, for instance, thought was okay for schlepping you around wherever it is you live is probably okay for your first track-day excursion. It’s true that altering camber, caster, and toe can improve handling, but it can also make it a whole lot worse and ruin an otherwise good set of tires. Instead, look to making incremental camber changes once you’ve mastered driving your car.
As far as suspension upgrades go, making sure the ones you’ve already done are free from wear and tear is a whole lot more important than upgrading to the 64-way-adjustable coilovers and multi-position anti-roll bars. Be sure that your dampers are in good working order and that any rubber bushings are also in good condition, both of which can lead to less grip and a car that’s more difficult to drive.
Your car may have never overheated on the road, but it will see far different conditions on the track. In most cases, on-track cooling issues can be cured with a thicker, better-performing radiator or by just cleaning out the wall full of leaves obstructing the front of the one you’ve already got. If your cooling problems present themselves while idling, which could suggest a bad water pump or cooling fan, be sure to sort all of this out before hitting the track and hoping it’ll go away by driving fast.
You probably don’t have any oiling problems, either, but if you do, hold off on visiting the track unless you want to make other people angry. As it turns out, your engine oil dripping across the pavement doesn’t do a whole lot for everyone else maintaining grip. An oil change before your event will never be a bad idea, either, nor will following up on how much oil your dipstick reads in between sessions.
Like brake pads, the right tires can mean the difference between a good day at the track and you ending up in the weeds. A set of high-quality, lightweight wheels and sticky tires should be one of the first places to invest your track-destined dollars. Not that you can’t live out your track-day fantasies on stock wheels and tires – because you can. Just be certain whatever you’re rolling on has got adequate tread and is free of cracks, leaks, or repair jobs. Successful track days and worn-out tires go hand in hand, so plan on investing in a set of dedicated wheels and rubber should you make this a habit.
Nobody ever had a successful track day without planning ahead. The better you plan, the better the chances of you going faster than you thought you could, your car holding up, and you not biffing it.
Before: Take care of any looming mechanical problems or performance upgrades ahead of time instead of the night before. You confirming that the water pump you just installed doesn’t leak and that your shocks don’t come undone from their control arms will be appreciated by your fellow racers. Avoid alcohol the night before and be sure to get enough sleep. Do yourself a favor and load up and prepare your car the day before. Finally, minimize any on-track drama by filling up your tank with fuel before arriving (track fuel can be costly) and be sure to pack your own water and grub so you aren’t beholden to the roach coach.
During: Don’t arrive late and pay attention to whoever’s addressing you at the driver’s meeting you’re required to attend. You’ll need to know what each flag means, when you’ll actually be able to get on the track, and whether or not you’ll be aloud to pass other cars. Also, be sure to remove any loose items from your car and stash them someplace in the pits. You’ll save weight and avoid being hit in the head with a shoe when rounding turns. If you’ve driven your car to the track, now’s the time to check and adjust tire pressures and top off any fluids if necessary.
After: If you’ll be driving your car home, you’ll need to inflate its tires and top off any fluids that have been spent. Now’s also a good time to check your brake pads and tires for wear to be sure they’re up to the drive home.
You’re bound to encounter a tech inspection once you arrive at the track. Don’t get turned away by overlooking the obvious.
- Secure your battery with the right bracket(s) and be sure its positive terminal’s covered to prevent arcing.
- Be sure your wheels are free of any dents, cracks or warpage that could affect how the tires seat.
- Make sure the tires have enough tread and that they’re free of repairs or visible cords.
- Take care of any engine oil or coolant leaks before the event.
- Be sure there’s no excess play in steering or suspension components.
- Check brake pad thickness before the event and confirm that the system’s free of leaks.
- Make sure those seatbelts work or that your aftermarket seat and harness are installed correctly.
- Don’t forget your Snell-approved helmet, long pants, and closed-toe shoes.